Note: titles released solely in DVD format are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray combos or Blu-ray only are listed in italics and bold font.
There’s a lot of boom and bang at the Multiplex this week – it’s summer, after all, and home theater habitues crave the action-adventure just as much as their theater-going brethen do. Superheroes abound, as usual – you have your choice of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy (Sony), which remain among the better comic-to-movie adaptations to date (save for the messy third installment with Topher Grace as Venom). There’s little new by way of features on the re-issues, save for a trivia game and an edit-your-own-clip extra on the first picture, but the new Blu-rays are a vast improvement over the previous hi-def release, which offered only bare bones editions of the first and second feature. It should be no surprise that all three discs also feature redemption codes to see the franchise revamp, The Amazing Spider-Man.
Sony also has Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the never-woulda-thunk-it sequel to the 2005 Nicolas Cage starrer based on the popular, ultra-doomy Marvel series. That picture was upended by a monsoon of Cage’s acting tics, as well as Wes Bentley’s wan villain. Such a combo should’ve put any sequel plans to rest, but Ghost Rider enjoyed a second life as a DVD favorite among camp fans and those fascinated by its lead’s curious career trajectory. Cage almost delivers a controlled performance as the stunt cyclist turned skull-faced, flame-engulfed instrument of doom, though he’s well-matched in the scenery-chewing department by Ciaran Hinds as Satan himself, Idris Elba as a boozy priest and Christopher Lambert as a high-tech monk aiding the Ghost Rider in protecting a boy from the forces of evil. Directors Neveldine/Taylor (Crank) provide their usual amped-up barrage of camera tricks, most of which will leave casual viewers with a case of mild whiplash and/or car sickness, but for those seeking high-gloss schlock, the thrill ride only ups the ante. The Blu-ray offers an amusing commentary from the directors, who barge into the frame to gleefully explain their own technical cleverness.
Elsewhere, you have Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Warner), Guy Ritche’s second installment in his over-caffeinated revamp of the venerable detective series; Robert Downey Jr. looks dreadfully bored as Holmes, and the picture is enlivened only by the presence of Jared Harris (Mad Men) as his nemesis, Professor Moriarity, and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) as a knife-wielding gypsy. Lighter fare can be found in Lionsgate’s Blu-ray issue of Meatballs, which despite its sleazy cover art, remains a harmless and charming gonzo comedy with Bill Murray’s best early turn as a feckless camp counselor who takes a shy newcomer (Chris Makepeace) under his wing.
There’s a similar sense of blithe silliness in Wanderlust (Universal), though it’s a decidedly more grown-up picture about two diehard New Yorkers (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who take to the road after losing their jobs and wind up at a nudist retreat overseen by Alan Alda. Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models) orchestrates a loose-jointed, haphazard film that nonetheless features some very funny bits well played by an exceptionally game cast that includes co-scripter Ken Marino (Party Down), Malin Akerman, and a very funny Justin Theroux as an addled would-be guru. Jay Duplass’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Paramount) strikes a similar balance of solid and underdone moments in its story of an unmoored young man (Jason Segal) who is suddenly seized with the notion of finding his path in life. His ill-considered plan crosses paths with that of his brother (Ed Helms), a disagreeable sort in the grip of a poorly considered affair. Their attempts to find common ground and unite their family (led by Susan Sarandon as their long-suffering mom) veer from broad comedy to genuine pathos, which is made palatable by the committed performances by the trio of leads. I am less enamored of the story’s execution, which like many of Duplass’ efforts, feels unfinished and unbalanced in its palette of emotions. I suppose one could argue that life is often like that, too, so indie comedy admirers might draw more from this than I did. Same goes for Bag of Hammers (MPI), a wan effort about two pals (Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig) in the grip of arrested development who find a sense of purpose in rescuing a young boy (Chandler Canterbury) from his apparent latchkey existence. It’s fitfully clever but not as amusing as it wants the audience to believe, but the presence of Ritter and Rebecca Hall as Sandvig’s prickly sister keep the picture buoyant.
There have been a lot of grisly examples of human behavior on display of late, from the harassed bus monitor grandma to whatever the hell is going on with people and bath salts in Florida, so director Agnieszka Holland’s Oscar-nominated In Darkness (Sony) may come as something of a relief to viewers, despite its harrowing subject matter. Based on actual events in Poland during the Nazi occupation in World War II, the film stars Robert Wieckiewicz as a petty thief who agrees to hide a group of Jews in the sewers under the city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) as a means of making easy cash. But over the course of 14 months, his conscience overtakes his wallet as his primary motivation for keeping his wards out of sight while keeping his own family safe. Holland avoids broad statements in favor of carefully etched character portraits that underscore the essential humanity of its protagonists, as well as the terrible fate that awaited them just outside the darkness of their temporary shelter (which, in itself may provide some heart-stopping moments for claustrophobics).
Those desiring something more left of center are directed to Keyhole (Entertainment One), Guy Maddin’s latest cryptic pronouncement, this time a blend of gangster noir and Homer’s Odyssey with Jason Patric as hoodlum chief Ulysses, who dumbfounds his henchmen, already in a state of alarm with cops on their trail, by arriving at their hideout with a captive young man and a girl in tow. Such brazen behavior casts a shadow of doubt amongst the crooks, who debate on removing Ulysses from the gang, while their boss searches their lair, a vast, seemingly endless house for his missing wife (Isabella Rossellini), who may be hidden in one of its rooms.
On the documentary are three typically fine features from First Run, two of which concern maverick thinkers in established industries. How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? profiles the British architect Norman Foster and his graceful, seemingly gravity-free buildings around the globe, while A Matter of Taste concerns the rise of chef Paul Liebrandt from obscurity to the heights of the food business in New York, which appears to react with equal parts delight and despair at his brash self-confidence and occasional naked neuroses. First Run also has Voices of the Andes, a visually gorgeous doc about the Qhapag Road, an ancient network of pathways that connected all points in the vast Incan empire and remains a symbol of the Andean people’s historical identity.
Elsewhere, there’s The Hidden Blade (Palisades Tartan), the latest from master director Yoji Yamada, with Masatoshe Nagasi (Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) as a samurai at odds with both the changing landscape of Japan’s political and military landscape and the country’s caste system, which prevents him from marrying the servant girl he loves. Dispatched by the new ruling party to eliminate his old friend and teacher, who stands accused of treason, Nagasi instead joins forces with his former master. Pitched to Stateside audiences as a samurai action picture, Hidden Blade is typically elegant, character-driven work from the veteran filmmaker, whose focus on the minor details of everyday life as a means of understanding the greater picture are showcased in one of the Blu-ray’s featurettes.
Little snapshots of everyday life are also at the heart of Dirty Old Town (Matson), a verite-style docudrama about Lower East Side antiques dealer Billy Leroy, who plays himself in a fictionalized, noir-flecked take on the circumstances that brought his fabled shop to a close earlier this year. Gentrification was the real culprit for the shutdown, but here, Leroy is up against gangsters who want his overdue rent in 72. The fictionalized story serves as a framework for directors Jennifer Furst and Daniel B. Levin to allow Leroy and a remarkable cast of amateur and non-professional actors to bring a palpable sense of authenticity to the proceedings. A documentary on the demise of Leroy’s store might’ve served purposes better, but for those who remember and pine for the “old” New York, this is a bittersweet taste of things that were.
Lastly, there are a passel of music-related titles on deck, including the 2012 doc Punk Revolution NYC (Pride), which documents the Velvets-to-Dolls rise of Big Apple Punk, and Road Rant: A Week on the Road with Lydia Lunch (MVD), a concert-movie-cum-road trip with Ms. Lunch as she traverses the country on tour, interspersed with interview segments and some fairly graphic animation. The double disc Neil Young: DVD Collector’s Box (Chrome Dreams) offers an overview of his sprawling career from Buffalo Springfield to 2006, while Cook with the Hook (MVD) offers some sweaty blues from John Lee Hooker at a 1974 concert at a town dump (really) in suburban Gardner, Massachusetts. Filmed in black-and-white for local broadcast, the production quality borders on cable access at its worst, but even the lousy coverage can’t quell the heat of Hooker’s best tunes, which are served up with an undeniable fervor and groove.
Where to start? Well, at the top of the 20th century, maybe, and then we’ll work down the decades. The Gold Rush (Criterion) is Charlie Chaplin’s defining work as an actor and director, offering a seamless blend of action, comedy and pathos in its story of the Little Tramp’s quest for gold and love in the Klondike. The film features two iconic sequences – the dance of the dinner rolls and the Tramp’s attempt to eat a boiled boot – that stand at the vanguard of silent film comedy, and helped to transform Chaplin from performer to icon. The Criterion Blu-ray offers both a remastered version of the 1925 original as well as Chaplin’s 1942 edit, for which he added an original score and narration, as well as new featurettes on its history, music and visual effects.
Somewhat less of a landmark, but still entertaining, is The Phantom of Crestwood (Warner Archives), an amusing bit of hokum launched as a radio serial and contest by producers Meriam C. Cooper (King Kong) and David O. Selznick in 1932. Listeners were asked to provide an ending for the serial, which would then serve as the wrap-up for the picture while earning its author a whopping $6,000. The picture itself is as good as one might expect for a gimmick – it’s an Old Dark House-style murder mystery with Karen Morley as a scheming gold digger who invites her ex-suitors to a soiree in order to soak them for dough. The plan backfires, Morley is killed, and one of the former boyfriends (played by Ricardo Cortez) attempts to ferret out the murderer. Paper-thing as it is, the entire picture wraps up in just over an hour, and provides both an amusing footnote in the history of screen suspense, as well as what might be the first multi-platform promotional event.
Warner Archives also has The Age of Consent, another David O. Selznick production from ’32, this time directed by Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey) with Richard Cromwell as a young student lured away from his sweetheart (former RKO secretary Dorothy Wilson) by a wily waitress (Arline Judge) he’s soon pressed to marry, as well as The Scapegoat (1959), a British thriller based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (The Birds, Rebecca) with Alec Guinness as identical twins – one a meek teacher, the other, an amoral French count – who switch places, providing the professor with a neurotic wife (Irene Worth) and a crazy mother (Bette Davis). Things get complicated when the count returns to murder his wife and claim the inheritance while pinning the crime on Teach.
There isn’t a lot I can add to the decades of praise heaped upon Harold and Maude, which debuts on Blu-ray. Still odd, sweet and altogether moving, the Hal Ashby dark comedy about a morbid young man (Bud Cort) who falls for a elderly woman (Ruth Gordon) bursting with life remains an unique movie experience, and one that should seen at least once in a viewer’s life time, if for no better reason than to get a dose of its cracked but sweet take on the value of life and love. The new Blu-ray offers commentary by Ashby biographer Nick Dawson, as well as audio excerpts of seminars by Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins, as well as an interview with Cat Stevens, who provided the film’s iconic songs.
Meanwhile, Kino has three of director Lina Wertmuller’s best-known political dark comedies from the 1970s, which are available as stand-alone Blu-rays or in a three-disc boxed set. In Love & Anarchy, Wertmuller’s favorite leading man, Giancarlo Giannini plans to assassinate Mussolini, but finds himself distracted by a prostitute (Lina Polito) who struggles with her decision to save him or her country. Giannini is also front and center in The Seduction of Mimi as a laborer on the lam from the Mafia who falls in love with a Communist organizer (Mariangelo Melato), while All Screwed Up, which makes its Stateside DVD debut with this release, follows the misadventures of several young immigrants who are swept up into the urban maelstrom of modern-day Milan.
Elsewhere, there’s Dogs in Space (Henstooth), a 1986 Australian comedy-drama about the Melbourne “little band scene,” with the late Michael Hutchence making an admirable screen debut as the addled singer of the titular post-punk band. Hutchence also penned a fistful of tracks with Ollie Olsen (Whirlywind/Max Q). Speaking of debuts, director Danny Boyle made his feature debut with Shallow Grave (Criterion), a 1994 thriller about a trio of callous friends, played by then-unknowns Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox, who take in a mysterious boarder who leaves behind a trunk full of money after his unexpected death. Said trunk motivates the three to make some very bad decisions with unfortunate outcomes for all; Shallow Grave is a lean, coal-black comedy with moments of exceptional suspense that helped to launch not only Boyle’s career but that of his future Trainspotting collaborators, writer John Hodge and producer Christopher McDonald. The Blu-ray offers commentary by Boyle and McDonald as well as new interviews with its cast.
And finally, Criterion also has Gray’s Anatomy, the fourth and final monologue feature by Spalding Gray, who holds forth on his arduous journey to understand and then content with a rare eye condition with the wry-but-awful name of macular pucker. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film is a marvelous meditation on the nature of health care and mortality – subjects that remain even more relevant today in the current mishegas of the American medical system. The disc features two eye-popping (quite literally) featurettes: A Personal History of the American Theater, a 90-minute monologue by Gray produced by the famed Wooster Group in 1980, and Swimming to the Macula, 16 minutes of Gray’s actual eye surgery. Following Gray’s death in 2004, Soderbergh assembled And Everything is Going Fine (Criterion), a retrospective look at his life and career constructed from interviews with clips featuring Gray. The Blu-ray offers Sex and Death to the Age 14, an extremely rare 1982 film of one of Gray’s earliest monologues.
I was unaware that the 1989 Dolph Lundgren actioner Red Scorpion had any sort of cult following, but here’s Synapse to prove me wrong with an impressive DVD/Blu-ray combo pack that pays generous lip service to the picture. The premise is by-the-books ’80s action fare, with Lundgren as a Soviet soldier sent to South Africa to assassinate an anti-Communist rebel leader and ultimately switching sides to join in the fight against his countrymen. Director Joseph Zito, who blew ’em up good on Invasion U.S.A. and Missing in Action, does more of the same here, but the real reason to check out the Synapse disc is the behind-the-scenes story, which reveals that the picture was the brainchild of future lobbyist/felon “Casino” Jack Abramoff (!). Real war in Angola, apartheid and the teenaged king of Swaziland also threatened to upend the production, which slinked in and out of theaters, but became a cellar dweller favorite in the waning days of VHS. Both Zito and the charmingly garrulous Lundgren are on hand to tell their sides of the story, as is Tom Savini, who handled special effects.
Meanwhile, Olive Films continues to unearth fine forgotten efforts from the Paramount vaults, including an entertaining trio of lesser-known science fiction pictures from the ’50s and ’60s. The Colossus of New York (1958) and The Space Children (1958) were produced by former Orson Welles assistant William Alland, who oversaw most of Universal’s fine science fiction efforts in the ’50s, including The Creature from The Black Lagoon (1954) and This Island Earth (1955). His efforts for Paramount were more poverty-struck but still enjoyable as Saturday afternoon fare. Colossus stars Ross Martin as a humanitarian scientist whose brain is transferred into a hulking metal body after a traffic accident. His benevolence towards his fellow man goes out the window when he learns that his scheming brother (John Baragrey) has designs on his wife, and the Colossus turns his death ray powers on the world at large, starting with the United Nations. The Space Children also has a monstrous force weighing in on the fate of humanity, only here, it’s a lumpy amoeba from space that uses mind control on kids to push an anti-war agenda. Neither picture comes within miles of The Day the Earth Stood Still territory – Space Children, directed by Black Lagoon helmer Jack Arnold, suffers from a goony plot and a creature that looks like a dirty bedsheet – but both have their low-wattage charms, chiefly the scary/tragic Colossus himself and the cast of ’50s familiar faces in Space Children, including Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies) and Johnny (Rifleman) Crawford. Olive also has Project X (1968), a fairly obscure title in William Castle’s c.v., with Christopher George as a spy who emerges from a cryogenic deep freeze with no memory of his previous mission, save that the Western world will be destroyed in two weeks. A team of scientists are dispatched to enter his mind to retrieve the information, which cues a barrage of psychedelic visual effects and animation by none other than Hanna-Barbera. I’ve read a few ambitious reviewers attempting to connect this film with The Matrix, which is a stretch and then some, but Project X is an amusing and visually fun spy-sci-fi hybrid.
The current batch of stellar TV-on-DVD releases means that you can officially stop watching Toddlers and Tiaras or My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding (I mean, unless you really want to) while you wait for the new network season to begin. Chief among the highlights is Louie: The Complete Second Season (Fox), comedian Louis C.K.’s exceptional series, a loose collection of vignettes that follow his hapless fictionalized self as he attempts to wrest some control over his career, love life and fatherhood. Louie hews to the cringe-style comedy of series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but C.K. keeps the action rooted in reality, as opposed to Larry David’s sometimes perverse caricatures and set-ups, and while his screen self is decidedly unmoored when it comes to dealing with life, the character (and the actor) have a warmth, especially in scenes with his two daughters, that boosts it above the humanity-as-zoo perspective of many current sitcoms. The new season starts… jeez, June 28, so get to watching.
However, you may have to take some time off from work in order to also fit in Web Therapy: The Complete First Season (Entertainment One) and Episodes: The First Season (Showtime). That the former, an improvised web series expanded to sitcom length and featuring Lisa Kudrow as a self-impressed therapist who offers “streamlined” three-minute sessions via webcam that invariably go awry, is frequently hilarious should be no surprise, given Kudrow’s Groundlings background and consistently solid work post-Friends. But Episodes, with LeBlanc playing a monstrous version of himself and wreaking havoc on an Americanized version of a UK TV series, holds its own, thanks in part to LeBlanc, whose gleeful take on blithely awful celebrity is terrific, as well as British performers Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Grieg as the series creators, whose lives are all but ruined by their exposure to LeBlanc and Hollywood as a whole.
You know, maybe it’s better if you start working from home. That way, you can also squeeze in The Sarah Silverman Program: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory), which remains one of the most polarizing comedies ever made, but in its best moments, approaches the blend of snark, strange and cartoon glee displayed by predecessors like Mr. Show (which also featured Silverman). Oh, and if it’s real Saturday morning fare you want, Warner Archives has the complete 13-episode run of Sealab 2020, Hanna-Barbera’s 1972 animated underwater science fiction series, and yes, the inspiration for Adult Swim’s berserk Sealab 2021.